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Carnival cruise crisis: Dead in the water, eating croissants

What really caught Uncle Al’s attention was the list of supposedly down-market edibles to which these unfortunate individuals would have to stoop for sustenance.

Every once in a while your crotchety old Uncle Al stumbles across something that makes him feel even crotchety older. Yesterday, for example, he was reading about the unhappy situation aboard the Mexican Riviera cruise ship Carnival Splendor, which an engine-room fire left without power, which meant no refrigeration.

According to news reports, the more than 3,000 passengers on the crippled ship, who had been dining at a level of service called “Manhattan chic,” were reduced to food helicoptered in from a naval air station in San Diego, including canned milk, Spam, Pop-Tarts and croissants.

This is indeed unfortunate, and Uncle Al shed a tear for these poor folks, who at one point were to have faced the indignity of being towed to the port of Ensenada, where they would face the further humiliation of being taken to California by bus. (Probably more than one bus, Uncle Al couldn’t help muttering as he read, or maybe one of those clown buses that holds 3,000.) Instead they are being towed to San Diego, which will take considerably longer but avoids the whole specter of riding in a bus.

What really caught Uncle Al’s attention, though, was that the list of supposedly down-market edibles, to which these unfortunate individuals would have to stoop for sustenance, included croissants.

Many readers — as a generalization, those who don’t recall dial telephones — may find this unimaginable, but when Uncle Al was in his prime, the croissant was French and unfamiliar. When he tasted his first one, in France in the 1970s, he thought it was magnificent. He wept yesterday to see it sunk so low.

On that long-ago French visit he also went nuts for espresso (this was at least 10 years before Starbucks, although maybe 15 years after Dudley Riggs imported a giant Italian espresso machine to East Hennepin Aveune), and Uncle Al dreamed briefly of opening a croissant and espresso bar in a Laundromat in Uptown. Happily it was not to be, as Uncle Al has no retail acumen and would have lost his shirt. And nobody would have enjoyed 30 years of a shirtless (and acumenless) Uncle Al.

Others, of course, managed eventually to flood the American marketplace with croissants and expensive coffee, and Uncle Al knew that the bloom was off the croissant, so to speak, as long ago as the mid-1980s, when Burger King introduced the breakfast Croissan’wich with egg, cheese and ham or sausage. But he still didn’t think of croissants as hardship fare.

Nor, he is quick to add, is he inclined to regard Spam in a negative light (or a positive dark), as he knows it to be a proud Minnesota product. But he doesn’t think Spam ever aspired to be anything quite as special as a croissant used to be.

As an aside (although, as usual, it’s hard to tell when Uncle Al is digressing, because it’s not as if he was going anywhere in the first place), Uncle Al noted that the newspaper photo of cans of Spam, waiting to be flown to the Carnival Splendor, had a caption that called it “Minnesota-based Spam,” a reference that might have struck some readers as peculiar: Is there Spam based somewhere else? Was it an attempt to play off the contrast between Minnesota and “Manhattan chic”? Possibly the latter, but probably it was just a mild nod to the long-standing newspaper tradition of mentioning any local angle in a story of larger significance.

This was such a feature of the old Minneapolis Tribune that inmates liked to joke that in a Tribune article about millions of people dying in an end-of-the world cataclysm, the second sentence would be: “Some of them were from the Upper Midwest.”

Still further aside (Uncle Al is now almost entirely off the page), in his early days on the copy desk of the Tribune, one of his mentors was Joe McQuaid, a swell fellow whose own editing career had begun at a small-town paper in New England. Joe liked to tell about the result of that paper’s rather extreme policy on localizing, which was that whenever there was a local angle in an article, it had to be mentioned in the headline.

Thus the article about the death of a man who had come from that town, gone off to seminary and become a priest in Boston, carried a headline that said:

Dead Priest
Born Here

Anyway, the article on the calamity aboard the Carnival Splendor noted that the passengers who were forced to eat croissants will get a refund for this voyage — and free tickets on a future cruise.

Presumably on that trip they will be served brioche.